By Cole Cusumano
The NASCAR Cup Series season that opened with tragedy and transitioned to a future of uncertainty amidst a global pandemic saw its murky image of success come into full-focus at the conclusion of Martinsville Speedway’s semi-final elimination debut. A year in which the sanctioning body rallied to implement progressive strides, while adapting to a rapidly changing climate, boiled down to a Samhain that would celebrate four gutsy performances from teams who earned a spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
Joey Logano won his way into the series finale in the opening race of the Round of 8 with an unlikely victory at Kansas Speedway that would prove to be the difference-maker for the title fight. Chase Elliott put on a dominant performance en route to celebration at the .526-mile track, which tightened the battle for the final pair of spots to within one-point in the closing lap of the Xfinity 500.
In the end, it was Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski that edged out the single-season win leader, Kevin Harvick for the two vacancies in the desert. Although many were critical upon the 2014 Champion’s exemption from the title hunt, there’s no denying all four teams who advanced rightfully justified their worth in securing this prestigious shot at history.
As a matter of fact, if you dig deeper, you’ll find this Championship 4 could potentially provide one of the most competitive title fights we’ve seen under the new playoff format.
“I think all of us are pretty evenly matched going into Phoenix,” Keselowski told POPULAR SPEED. “Denny has had some good runs there, Chase has had some good runs there, Joey won last spring. We’ve been so good on that type of track this season. I think it’s about as even matched as it’s going to get.”
Serving as the most unlikely of the quartet of drivers to advance, Keselowski could easily surprise as the 2020 Champion. In what he called, “silently one of the best seasons of my career,” the driver of the No. 2 found victory lane four times and passed Fireball Roberts on the all-time wins list, but the most convincing argument lies in his record at flat, one-mile tracks using the same low-downforce package and tire as Phoenix.
Keselowski won two out of the three races using the same parameters as the site of the championship — the only event he didn’t win was actually at Phoenix, where he led 82 laps and had arguably the car to beat until a late pit stop took him out of contention.
It was Elliott, who perfected the equivalent of a Major League Baseball walk-off at Martinsville, that led the most laps at Phoenix in the Spring and served as the main obstacle in Keselowski’s line to victory. Similar to his counterpart, late-race cautions and pit stops prevented the 24-year-old from securing his first win in Avondale, but he now has a shot at redemption on the biggest stage possible.
Elliott finds himself in unfamiliar territory after making the Championship 4 and will attempt to be the youngest driver to win a title since Jeff Gordon in 1995. With an impressive reputation at the Arizona track and the luxury of starting from the pole, the racing prodigy is taking in the moment and focusing on himself.
“I think the worst thing we can do is worry about everybody else all week,” Elliott said. “But for right now, I’m just enjoying the night. This is a big moment for us, having to perform in a tough spot. I think that’s something we’ve been missing as a team, something we haven’t been able to achieve over the last handful of years.”
Hamlin enters the Championship round as the definitive favorite, but there is certainly an enigma surrounding his chances at capturing that first Cup title. Earlier at Phoenix, the driver of the No. 11 was taken out after a wreck on Lap 65, leaving the team with little to build off for the future. Additionally, he only had one quality finish at tracks using the same package and tire as the series finale (runner-up at Loudon).
With all this in mind, it’s impossible to overlook what Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have accomplished in 2020. He backed up quite possibly the best season of his career with an even better performance. For a majority of the year, the three-time Daytona 500 Champion was unstoppable and there’s no reason he can’t finish what he started in 2019.
Oh, and he won at Phoenix last November.
“We obviously had a great Phoenix last year,” Hamlin admitted. “Things were a lot different. You had a different aerodynamic package. Certainly I feel like when I go there I’m going to roll off and hopefully have a race winner.”
Finally comes Logano, who’s seemingly caught fire at the perfect time could shock the world again by replicating the magic achieved in 2018 when he conquered the ‘Big Three.’ The driver of the No. 22 is scorching hot and is the only driver in contention for the title who hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 in the past four races.
The most damning evidence that could foreshadow Logano becoming a two-time Champion is his ridiculous stats this season at short tracks using the same low-downforce package and tires as Phoenix. He leads all drivers with an astounding 2.7 average finish, which includes a win in the Valley of the Sun.
Perhaps the greatest advantage lies in the power of conclusiveness. Logano had the luxury of knowing his fate for the championship event following the first race in the Round of 8, while every other was left fighting for their chance at racing in the promised lands. Most importantly, with this assurance came time and that could be the deciding factor that leads the No. 22 team to glory once more.
“Really the past two weeks the advantage we earned was to be able to focus on our Phoenix car before everybody,” Logano revealed. I think we proved that our pit crew tonight is absolutely incredible. I don’t think there was one pit stop I didn’t gain at least one spot throughout it. They’ll be ready to go when we get out there.
“I think we’ve proven our team is definitely the team to beat. We’re well-rounded. I think that’s something that can help us next week.”
For Keselowski to say the playing field is equal between the Championship 4 is an understatement. Valid arguments could be made to spotlight each of these drivers as the new Cup Series Champion in 2020. There’s no way of conclusively picking one clear-cut favorite and this is sure to be one of the most competitive title fights in recent years.
Decide for yourself and witness the madness unfold at Phoenix Raceway, as the one-mile tri-oval makes its Championship debut on November 8 on NBC.